Teenagers who are bullied or who struggle with sexual orientation may deal with anxiety, depression or substance abuse. But an expert on suicide prevention says there’s no data showing that these issues are directly connected people taking their own lives.
Dan Reidenberg, executive director of SAVE, or Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, and chair of the American Association for Psychotherapy, spoke with journalist Rhonda Miller during a conference on mental health and suicide in Washington, D.C.
Q: There’s sort of a common conversation that bullying can cause teenagers to consider killing themselves. Also, if they’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender some people say, in general conversation, these are factors that may cause teenagers to consider killing themselves. Is there research that shows that these factors can contribute to teenagers taking their own life?
REIDENBERG: We do have research that shows that if you’re bullied you may find yourself more at risk of suicide. Your risk goes up. You might think about suicide more frequently. You might have a suicidal gesture, suicidal behavior. We don’t have any research anywhere to demonstrate that there’s a causal link between bullying and suicide. Similarly, we don’t have the same thing for sexual orientation status. We know that those who are dealing with sexual orientation issues, whether as adolescents or as adults, struggle with that. It’s not easy for them. That may increase their suicidal thinking. It may increase some of their attempts at suicide. We don’t have any data to suggest that there’s actually higher death rates because of the two, there’s no causal link between them.
Part of that with sexual orientation is that is not on death certificates, so we don’t know that information.
But the reality is that we don’t have anything in research that provides any direct correlation between bullying and suicide or sexual orientation and suicide, as a death. In terms of ideation, thoughts about suicide and suicidal behaviors, yes, we know that those increase. Depression increases. Anxiety increases. Substance use increases - but not actual death.
Q: Particularly, let’s say, with adolescents or teenagers, when there are situations that are of concern and and people think this person, or this teenager, should seek some help, some counseling, and they are resistant to that, how do you encourage the teenagers or the families to get help? A lot of times, especially with teenagers to determine what’s normal or what’s a dangerous situation or when they really need some immediate help.
REIDENBERG: To be able to get families be able to seek help for someone, or for a child or an adolescent to get help on their own, meaning that the parents have brought them, but the idea is we want to get them to understand that they might need help themselves.
What’s really important is we help them, both the parents or the children to understand that what’s going on for them is outside of the norm. It’s outside of what we developmentally would expect for them to be going through.
We know that depression happens. It happens in life. People lose a pet. A family member dies. They have to move. The parents get divorced. Trouble in school academically. Those things cause people to have ups and downs in their mood.
But what we want the child and/or the parents, it might be a sibling, could be a grandparent, to recognize is when that becomes outside of the norm. So for example, depression lasting more than two or three weeks, that would be characteristic of somebody who might need to be seen and talked to by somebody else. Somebody where their academics are sliding week after week and month after month, we might need the school to talk with the parents to talk with the children to say, “Hey, we might need you to talk to somebody.”
So it’s really about people to understand what’s out of character, what’s uncharacteristic, what’s out of the norm for them. That’s when we want them to seek help.
Resources: For more information go to the SAVE website: Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. Anyone experiencing a mental health crisis or having thoughts of suicide, or family or friends concerned about a loved one can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.